A top secret CIA work retreat in the fall of 1953 took a turn for the weird when agency operative Sidney Gottlieb slipped LSD into his colleagues’ after dinner cocktails.1 Most people on acid return to normal after a few hours—guest Frank Olson wasn’t so lucky.
The following morning Olson found himself in the grips of an LSD-induced psychotic episode.2 Several days later, in a fit of drug-triggered paranoia and despair, the agent leapt to his death from a 10th floor hotel window.2
It’s hard to think of a group of people less suited to tolerate the effects of acid than paranoid, McCarthy-era spies.
Yet tolerate they did—in quantities that would make even the most mildewy Bard sophomore recoil in disbelief. After all, this was Allen Dulles’ CIA here. The 50s incarnation of the venerable intelligence agency was secret agentry at its most swashbuckling. These noble agents would let nothing stand in the way of the truth, or rather, the development of a psychopharmacological serum to extract truth from unwilling subjects.
Villainous narcotics like pot, heroin, cocaine, speed, laughing gas, amyl nitrate, PCP, and goofballs were routinely tested by agency and army scientists as potential truth serum candidates.1 No drug was too obscene, even LSD, which at the time was little more than a scientific curiosity, devoid of any mystico-religious overtones.1
Today it seems a bit silly. Acid-trippers aren’t exactly known for their faithful adherence to literal facts. Yet there was something about the drug that captivated government spooks. 1
Several thousand times more potent than mescaline, LSD could induce hour-long fits of psychosis with a mere dab on one’s skin.2 The drug was colorless, tasteless, and odorless—powerful enough to dose entire cities, yet subtle enough to discredit that meddlesome leftist intellectual with a well-timed bout of insanity during a key speech.2
People in the CIA began to wonder, was this an interrogation drug they had on their hands—or something more outrageous? Could it be used as a torture device? A bioweapon? Or perhaps even as a brainwashing agent? Could they use acid to control the minds of entire populations? Were the Soviets already doing this?
And so it was, in a series of paralogical leaps not unlike those forged during a typical drug-fueled gabfest, the CIA went from studying truth serums, to investigating LSD mind control tactics.1 They created their own super-secret program for overseeing such research (codenamed MKULTRA), and placed at its head today’s anti-hero, the club footed, folk-dancing biochemist Sidney Gottlieb.1
Gottlieb’s LSD Research Initiative
The first phase of Gottlieb’s LSD research program was simply to have everyone of his staff members drop acid themselves.1
Once self-experimentation proved too predicable, Gottlieb and his men moved on to the second phase: surprise acid tests. Like some sort of twisted Just For Laughs gag, agents would slip tabs of acid into their colleagues’ drinks at work, and hang around to record the effects.1
While Gottlieb’s men started out just experimenting on each other, the operation quickly expanded. Soon any CIA official in the wrong place at the wrong time could find themselves victim of a covert drugging.1
After all, agents were going to be deploying this drug in the field on people who probably hadn’t even heard of LSD. They needed to know how people would react when they truly had no idea what was coming. This is science people! You gotta control your variables!
Experimental rigor aside, most agents didn’t take kindly to being dosed in the name of national security.2 What’s more, as Frank Olson’s suicide confirmed, surprise LSD testing really was dangerous.1
Under pressure from his superiors, Gottlieb quit drugging his coworkers, and focused his efforts on the third phase of MKULTRA’s LSD research: blind acid tests on the general public.2
Operation Midnight Climax
Operation Midnight Climax was a classic bait and switch maneuver.1 Gottlieb employed prostitutes to lure men back to a CIA-financed cathouse in San Francisco.1 The hooker would lure the unsuspecting john back to her pad, at which point she’d offer him an acid-laced refreshment. All the while a secret agent would be stationed on a portable toilet behind a two-way mirror, watching the sleazy action and recording the—um—scientific results.1
Crazy as it may seem, government-backed bordellos formed the backbone of the CIA’s in-house LSD research initiative for the better part of a decade.2
As agents got comfortable with San Fran’s seedy underbelly, they branched out and began drugging people in public.2 Gottlieb even had his men studying femme-fatale-style sexpionage tactics, seeing as they were spending so much time around prostitutes anyway.1
So what exactly did the CIA glean from all this drug and sex research? Well—um—uhhhhh—gotta go!
Oh, you’re still here? Yes—um—well the truth is we don’t really know what they learned, because for ass-protecting reasons Gottlieb ordered his staff not to keep records of the testing.2 MKULTRA was dismantled in the early 60s, and CIA director Richard Helms ordered all related documents destroyed in 1973.2
There were some Senate hearings in 1977, but an eerily well-timed fit of amnesia prevented Gottlieb from testifying to much of anything.1 So what we’re left with is just a smattering of documents, and a couple great books.
LSD Mind Control in Practice
Certainly it became clear over the course of Gottlieb’s experimentation that acid was not an all-powerful mind control agent.2 But I’d wager the CIA found at least some use for it during their 10+ years of research.
Gottlieb himself is probably best remembered for his (apocryphal?) plot to slip Castro an LSD-laced cigar, though this plan never materialized (I think). Other similarly weird conspiracies have slipped into popular lore—like the plot to make Castro’s beard fall out with thalium salts2—or the plot to drizzle poison onto Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s toothbruth. Who knows what bizarre schemes were actually deployed as a result of Gottlieb’s research?
“One leftist professor in a Latin American university who had opposed the CIA says that he was working alone in his office one day in 1974 when a strange woman entered and jabbed his wrist with a pin stuck in a small round object. Almost immediately, he become irrational, broke glasses, and threw water in colleagues’ faces. He says his students spotted an ambulance waiting for him out front. They spirited him out the back door and took him home, where he tripped (or had psychotic episodes) for more than a week. He calls the experience a mix of “heaven and hell,” and he shudders at the thought that he might have spent the time in a hospital “with nurses and straitjackets.” Although he eventually returned to his post at the university, he states that it took him several years to recover the credibility he lost the day he “went crazy at the office.” If the CIA was involved, it had neutralized a foe.”2
Ironically, the most obvious effect of the CIA’s acid program was that it put LSD firmly in the minds of the 60s countercultural elite. Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey were among the many influential hippies who experienced their first trips as subjects in government-funded drug experiments.2 Even the august Aldrous Huxley dropped his first tab at the hand of government spook turned acid evangelical “Captain” Alfred M. Hubbard.1
Dredging through hot muck in Congolese jungles, or slinking through the crowd at Central American political rallies, Sidney Gottlieb comes across today as less a real person than some kind of shadowy anti-figure of hippy enlightenment, irreparably disfigured by the acid he once sought to control.
Mad scientists, after all, are nothing but conduits of insanity in its purest form—insanity which seeks only to perpetuate its own existence. If Gottlieb’s bizarre LSD-laced machinations speak to the sickness of his own mind, they also inadvertently opened a door to even more extreme forms of drug-fueled mania.
The hippie madness of Bart Huges—the psychiatric crimes of Ewan Cameron and Harry Isbell—the sinister mind control applications of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado—what daemons are unleashed upon humanity when already megalomaniacal scientists come face to face with the most powerful hallucinogen the world has ever known?!
1. Lee, M.A., & Shlain, B. (1985). Acid dreams, the complete social history of LSD: The CIA, the sixties, and beyond. New York, NY: Grove Press.
2. Marks, J. (1979). The search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and mind control. New York, NY: Times Books.
3. Ronson, J. (2005). The men who stare at goats. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.